Ursa Major

The Great Bear

The wood-nymph Callisto was a maiden in the wild region Arcadia. She was a huntress, "not one who spent her time in spinning soft fibres of wool, or in arranging her hair in different styles. She was one of Diana's warriors, wearing her tunic pinned together with a brooch, her tresses carelessly caught back by a white ribbon, and carrying in her hand a light javelin or her bow" (Metamorphoses II 412-415).

Jupiter caught sight of her and immediately desired her. He took on the shape of the goddess Diana and spoke to Callisto, who was delighted to see the form of her mistress. She began to tell him of her hunting exploits, and he responded by raping her. "She resisted him as far as a woman could--had Juno seen her she would have been less cruel--but how could a girl overcome a man, and who could defeat Jupiter? He had his way, and returned to the upper air" (Metamorphoses II 434-437).

The cruelty of Juno mentioned by Ovid resulted from the goddess's easily-aroused jealousy. Unfortunate Callisto bore a son to Jupiter, Arcas, infuriating Juno. Out of jealousy, the wife of Jupiter transformed the girl into a bear. She lived for a time in the wild, until Arcas came across her one day while hunting. Unknowingly, he was about to kill his mother in her bear form, but Jupiter took mercy on Callisto, stayed Arcas's hand, and transformed him into a lesser bear. The king of gods then placed both mother and son into the heavens as neighboring constellations.

The constellation Ursa Major, representing Callisto, is one of our most familiar. It includes the Big Dipper, perhaps the most-recognized feature of a constellation in the heavens.

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These pages are the work of Cathy Bell
cmbell (at) comfychair (dot) org
originally for the Princeton University course CLA 212.